Russian Doll Review – Netflix’s Cynical + Cyclical Comedy
Russian Doll seemed to come straight out of nowhere and delivered an existential gut punch that knocked the wind right out of me.
Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Every now and then, a show comes along that takes a well used pre-existing concept and turns it into something spectacular. Time loops as a narrative device have been around for a long time with films like Groundhog Day cementing themselves firmly in pop culture. Recently there has been an influx of these films with Happy Death Day 2U gracing cinema screens and Netflix really churning them out with Naked and When We First Met. In this slightly saturated sub-genre, Russian Doll is the most original take that I have seen so far.
Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) is celebrating her 36th birthday with a hipster-filled party in a beautiful New York apartment. The gang are celebrating in style with drugs, revelry and chicken, all things needed for a top-notch soirée. After leaving the party Nadia is searching for her missing cat Oatmeal and ends up being struck by a taxi and killed. There’s no bright light and no afterlife, she simply finds herself alive and well, back in the bathroom at her birthday party and feeling an intense déjà-vu.
It starts, as we would expect, a Groundhog Day loop with some slapstick humour moments and Nadia’s deep belief that she simply had some bad cocaine. With every episode, every reset and the introduction of Alan (Charlie Barnett), another unfortunate looper, it becomes so much more. This very explorative and deep series continually amplifies the emotional stakes as it progresses.
After her first few deaths Russian Doll almost turns into a Film Noir with Nadia being the trench coated, chain smoking, hard-boiled detective who “needs answers and she needs ‘em now ya here!” Yet to pin this down to one simple genre just does not seem to do it justice. In the style of a real Russian doll, this is a horror, inside a comedy, inside a sci-fi, inside a drama. The dark comedy stays throughout but the morbid themes and gut wrenching realisations intensify until the stunning crescendo of the ending.
Nadia and Alan are an extremely complimentary yet divergent duo who draw us deeper into their nightmare lives with each new loop. They are the clown and the clean freak who both mask their underlying pain, one with self-deprecating humour and the other with a facade of control. Both characters have their own internal demons that must be faced for them to break the cycle, and to do this they must embrace each other’s company and take on their biggest fears.
The women in the show are the true highlights. I cannot explain enough how much I love Natasha Lyonne’s performance (say it with me guys “Coc-a-roach”). The surrounding characters each with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies are impeccable from “Sweet Birthday baby” crooning Maxine (Greta Lee) to wisdom spewing mother figure Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley). The excellent dialogue and fully formed female characters are clearly a reflection of the females that helmed this show, Leslye Headland, Amy Poehler and Natasha Lyonne. Each woman behind the scenes gives their own flavour to this show and it becomes an incredible concoction of strong character, life altering events and hard-edged comedy.
Alongside this there is a strong supporting male cast who are used brilliantly. The interesting element seems to be that they seem to be in roles that are usually assigned to female characters in shows like this. We get the sidekick straight man, the sexual conquest, the love torn ex etc. Yet this isn’t done in a way that is slapping you in the face with its message, it simply is a woman’s story and the relationships are built how they need to be.
As the narrative develops, it becomes more and more at its core a story about humans. His is still about death, mortality, self-absorption and the ghosts of our past that simply never leave us. The acceptance of our pain, of our past and where we are heading is at the heart. Frequent mentions are made of the ‘abyss’ with Nadia both being referred to, and referring to herself as it, yet this is what both her and Alan must hit to bring themselves back from the brink.
Alan hits his abyss as he realises the event that began his loop was his suicide after a failed proposal to his girlfriend. He sinks into his neurotic control, repeating his day in the same way over and over, possibly committing suicide more than once to reset his day. He must accept that there are things beyond his control and in a beautiful conversation during his last loop, he finally realises this. As Nadia talks him from the edge he asks, “You promise me I’ll be happy?” and Nadia’s honest reply is “No. But I can promise you, you will never be alone.” Not all can be controlled.
Nadia must deal with her biology and her fear of falling to the same fate as her mother. The intense visualisation of this fear is shown in one of the more horror themed moments of the show when Nadia begins to see her younger self. To come face to face with an actualisation of your past and what you must embrace to move forward is traumatic. Nadia’s body tries to ‘protect’ her from what she is witnessing by simply flipping the off switch. She tries so hard to save her friends, to sustain the life she has, but it is not until she accepts the changes that need to be made that she can move forward. To paraphrase, she must stare down the barrel of her own mortality.
I was reminded of the ‘Welcome to the Bathtub’ scene from Beasts of the Southern Wild during the ending of this show. As Alan and Nadia march with Horse (Brendan Sexton III) and his gang through the orange-lit streets of New York there is a beautiful sense of a chapter being close but the book still being open. The music swells and the papier-mâché animal heads dance across the screen in a mesmerising mixture of a carnival and Día de Muertos.
The stern faced and controlling Alan beams a smile of irreverence as he howls and dances with the group. Nadia is strident, looking past everyone and everything as she holds aloft her torch and marches onwards. These two people have been through the ringer, multiple times, and now they have to figure out how they move forward.
Heartfelt and weirdly life affirming and motivational this is a gem in the TV crown of 2019. Give it your time, it has earned it.